One step at a time

Madeleine Albright was on Fresh Air yesterday to talk about her new book: Fascism: A Warning and about the fascist trend.

Albright was the first woman secretary of state. She was appointed to that position by President Bill Clinton in 1997, after having served as his U.N. ambassador. Her new book examines how fascism took hold in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Then Albright moves on to look at current authoritarian leaders in several Eastern European countries, Turkey, Russia and North Korea. One chapter is devoted to President Trump, whose election, she says, added to her sense of urgency in writing this book. Albright is now a Distinguished Professor of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: …And part of the reason for writing it is to say that in fact this can happen in countries that have democratic systems, that have a population that’s interested in what is going on, that is supportive. Because so many of the things that have happened and happened in Czechoslovakia were steps that came as a result of ethnic issues with the German minority, but mostly steps that seemed not so terrible that there couldn’t be a deal made. And so that’s what’s so worrisome, is that these fascism can come in a way that it is one step at a time, and in many ways then goes unnoticed until it’s too late.

GROSS: One step at a time within the system?

ALBRIGHT: Within the system, and partially because it is a way of undermining democracy and the democratic institutions that are the basis of democracy, or criticizing the press or thinking that there are those that are enemies of the people and are the cause of distress or a bad economic situation. And it kind of works on the fear factor rather than the hope factor.

She talks about the fact that fascism presents different faces, so it’s easy to miss the early stages because the face is different.

GROSS: Would you just do, like, a roll call of democratic countries that you see turning authoritarian today?

ALBRIGHT: Yes. And that’s what’s so unfortunate about it because what we really do have are – in Europe, for instance, the prime example is Hungary with Viktor Orban, who is now talking about illiberal democracy, which is basically a way to deal with whoever is not, in his description, a Hungarian so he can go after immigrants. There are – then in Turkey we’re seeing a problem where in fact Erdogan, who was elected popularly, has accumulated a lot of power and wants to change the rules and the laws and the constitution in order to be able to be there longer. We have the fact that Poland is kind of mimicking what Hungary did. And then what we have in Europe also – and these are friends and allies – are other countries where there is an element of those that are taking advantage of the fear factor in some way, as I said.

For instance, in Germany, all of a sudden there’s a very far-right party that is now in the parliament. We just saw the elections in Italy, which are also parties that are on extremes are taking advantage of a particular situation. Then we have the issue in the Philippines, where Duterte thinks it’s terrific to kill drug dealers and talks about all the things that he has accomplished in that particular way. And then of course we’ve got what’s going on in Russia with Putin.

And then I have to say what I find – and this all has kind of happened since the book was written – is what in fact has happened in China with the changing of their constitution in order to make Xi Jinping be able to be a lifelong leader of a party. So there are a number of different places, but I think that the ones that really looking at what is happening in Europe and then of course in our own hemisphere, with Venezuela. That is another example of a country where initially Hugo Chavez came in as a result of the fact that the tired old men that were running the place before had not really had a relationship with the people. And then Chavez changes, and he becomes an authoritarian and, I would say, a fascist.

So, given all this variation, it becomes difficult to come up with an overarching explanation. Why is this happening in all these very different places? Add in Brexit, by the way, as Albright says later.

Albright says something generic about technology and divisions.

And then the other part of this, which I think is essential, is there is some leader at the top who takes advantage of these divisions and, in fact, exacerbates them so that the societies are more and more divided and wrangled and looking for scapegoats, which is where the immigrants come in. But mostly, this is something that’s created internally by massive changes in society and some of them due to technology.

I don’t know. I think those divisions are always there. In our case for instance…you could argue this wouldn’t have happened if The Apprentice had never happened, so how central are “the divisions” really?

GROSS: Let’s talk about what’s happening in the United States. I want to read a passage that you write in your book, “Fascism: A Warning,” a passage about President Trump. You write (reading) we’ve never had a president, at least in the modern era, whose statements and actions are so at odds with democratic ideals. Trump has spoken harshly about the institutions and principles that make up the foundation of open government.

In the process, he has systematically degraded political discourse in the U.S., shown an astonishing disregard for facts, libeled his predecessor, threatened to lock up political rivals, bullied members of his own administration, refer to mainstream journalists as enemies of the American people, spread falsehoods about the integrity of the U.S. electoral process, touted mindlessly nationalistic economic and trade policies and nurtured a paranoid bigotry toward the followers of one of the world’s foremost religions.

Do you think that President Trump has the instincts of an authoritarian leader?

ALBRIGHT: I think that he is the most anti-democratic president that we have had in modern history and that his instincts are really in that direction. And I think that that’s what worries [him]. And the passage that you read really does show that what he’s trying to do is undermine the press and has disdain for the judiciary and the electoral process and minorities. And I think that his instincts are not ones that are democratic. And he is interested basically in, I think, exacerbating those divisions that I talked about. And so I am very concerned. And basically, this is – you know, I’d written the book because I have picked up that phrase, see something, say something. And I am seeing some things that are the kinds of things that we’ve seen in other countries. And so I’m saying not only should we say something, but we have to do something about it.

I think she didn’t mean that “him” I put in brackets – it makes more sense as “me” or “us.”

Anyway…I would have put it a lot more firmly, but then I’m not a former government official. Of course Trump has the instincts of an authoritarian leader; there’s no question about it. He makes a display of them every day.

5 Responses to “One step at a time”